I have a buddy named Noah. We went to the same high school, we share a lot of friends and until recently, we worked together. We have many common interests, but none greater than our love of blowing money on fine spirits and well-made cocktails. We do this together every couple of weeks. We call them “man-dates.” Until you’ve done it, it may be hard to understand, but there’s something calming and fun about hanging out with a friend or two and slowly sipping on something that’s been in a bottle longer than most married couples stay that way. Maybe it’s a waste of money, maybe we’re pretentious, maybe we’re channeling our inner Mad Men. Doesn’t matter. We have a mandate to man-date.
One thing we don’t typically agree on is tequila. Noah is a tequila enthusiast. I’m more of a bourbon guy. That’s not to say I don’t like tequila or that I don’t know much about it, I’ve just never had a tequila that really stuck with me the way some bourbons have. Since it’s always good to broaden one’s horizons, I decided to summon Noah for a man-date. My goal was simple; force myself to like tequila. My plan? Drink a lot of tequila.
It should go without saying that drinking tequila, or any alcoholic substance in large quantities is never good for you. Aside from the obvious concerns of hangovers (more on that later) and booze-bellies, most liquors have a ton of grain, wheat, barley, and sugar. This is especially true for rum and tequila, because they’re distilled from sugar cane and blue agave, respectively, two plants that are heavily concentrated with natural sugars. That being said, tequila shouldn’t necessarily be avoided if you’re trying to drink healthy, you just may want to alter the way you drink it. You can start by watching what you mix it with, as many bottled margarita mixtures are absolutely loaded with sugar and preservatives. If you’re not going to drink it straight, try making your margaritas with fresh lime juice, a dash of agave nectar or honey, and a little club soda. You should also pay attention to the tequila you drink, as not all things labeled “tequila” are actually made from 100% agave. If it’s not, then it’s most likely been fortified with artificial sugar. Also, for people that subscribe to the gluten-free philosophy, tequilas made completely from blue agave are indeed gluten-free. There has also been some speculation that tequila in small doses can aid in digestion, reduce bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol. ::::Virtual-high-five!!::::
To complete this experiment, I’ve decided I need to find a place where I can drink good tequila, drink it straight, and know that if I get any tequila cocktails, they’ll be made with only fresh ingredients. Luckily, I have another friend named Julia. Julia runs the bar at Willow in Fells Point and she knows her stuff. Aside from being a tequila enthusiast herself, Julia has a wide selection of true tequilas and mezcals at Willow that pair well with their Latin-inspired menu. All of these reasons made Willow the perfect spot to host this endeavor. Another good reason is that I can walk there, and I’m not afraid to get embarrassingly drunk in front of Julia. I knew things might get a tad fuzzy, so like the responsible “journalist” I am, I brought a notepad. Here’s how it went down:
8:39 PM: I arrive at Willow alone. There’s a couple sitting at the bar, but it looks like they’re on their way out. That’s a shame, they’re about to miss a good show.
8:42 PM: Julia greets me at the bar and pours me a glass of water. She asks if I want a beer to start with, I decline. She asks if I’ve eaten today, I have. ”Let’s start with these, because I want you to actually remember them,” she says as she places three bottles in front of me. They are each labeled 1, 2, and 3, and strangely enough, they’re made by the 123 Tequila company. Everything about the bottles are recycled, right down to the label and the ink. Aside from the eco-friendliness of 123, the tequila tastes great. She pours me a sample of each- the blanco, reposado, and the añejo. If you’re not sure what these classifications mean, the simple explanation is that blanco (sometimes “silver”) is un-aged, while the reposado and añejo (sometimes “gold”) are aged in barrels, with the latter getting a longer aging period. All three of these are delicious, and as a bourbon guy, my preference naturally skews for the richer whiskey-like flavors of the añejo.
8:54 PM: Julia hands me a drink called “Sangrita” to cleanse my palate. It’s tasty, but to my dismay, there is no tequila in it. I keep it to sip on periodically.
8:55 PM: Next up is El Jimador blanco, which Willow uses as their house tequila, and Milagro blanco. For a house liquor, El Jimador is quite good, as is the Milagro. I make a note for some reason that the Milagro would be great as a shot, especially in place of something as harsh and usually-overpriced as Patron Silver. Patron, through the magic of marketing and cultural good luck, has sort of become the go-to tequila for many people. Some sip it, some shoot it, and most people don’t mind paying $8-$12 for a serving of it. If you’ve been at a bar for someone’s birthday in the last three years, chances are that someone has handed you a glass of room-temperature Patron to shoot. It’s become the unofficial drink for “Now we’re drinking.” I personally do not like it very much, but I ask Julia for a sip of it for comparison’s sake. ”We don’t carry it” she says.
8:57 PM: Chips and salsa, compliments of the chef.
8:59 PM: Two guys who just came in also get some chips and salsa, but they don’t appear to be writing anything.
9:06 PM: Three more Reposados. Cazadores, Jose Cuervo Tradicional, and Kah. Most people probably know Cuervo Gold, one of the more popular tequilas on the market. The Tradicional is actually quite nice, but I’m distracted by the Kah. Kah comes in a hand-painted ceramic bottle shaped like a skull and is an eye-catcher on any shelf. Not just a pretty bottle, though, it’s pretty delicious. Smokey and slightly sweet, it reminds me of a nice blended scotch.
9:15 PM: Noah arrives with another friend of ours, Jason, after coming from the gym (this sentence is the only thing remotely healthy about this piece of writing.) They’re each greeted with three tasters of their own. ”How’s it work?” Jason asks. He’s not a big liquor guy, unless he’s shooting it and it’s mixed with Red Bull, so I’m excited to get his perspective on this.
9:22 PM: Herradura Silver, Reposado, and Añejo. The Silver comes across a little flat to me, but the Reposado and Añejo have a good amount of balanced sweetness and spice. Noah and I agree that the Añejo is reminiscent of apple pie, and it’s one of my standouts from the night. He takes a triumphant sip and claims “When I drink tequila, I feel like Fidel Castro.” I’m guessing he meant this to be a good thing.
9:32 PM: Time to switch it up and go for a cocktail. We order the “Daisy”, which is Willow’s version of a classic margarita. Made with fresh sour mix, agave nectar, and El Jimador blanco, it’s a well-executed version of a drink I’ve had dozens of times, and it’s especially refreshing after sipping on straight tequila for the better part of an hour. We have another cocktail after that involving Herradura Reposado and grapefruit juice, among other ingredients, but I didn’t catch the name of it.
9:48 PM: Don Roberto Añejo, another standout for me. Slight sweetness, slight smoke, and extremely smooth. I had mine with one ice cube in it, and I could see it being a nice after-dinner sipper. Noah, on the other hand, tires of it quickly, noting that the “sweet onion” taste is too much for him.
9:59 PM: Julia busts out a miniature Kah skull bottle, but this time it’s the Añejo. It has a definite hint of vanilla, but not nearly as sweet as the Don Roberto. The vanilla smell is balanced with a nice agave flavor and smoothness. I’m glad it was only a miniature bottle, because my next note was…
10:02 PM: “Start drunk.”
10:05 PM: I notice the Espolon Blanco, and I get excited, because it’s one of the few tequilas I’ve had in the past few years that I’ve actually remembered liking a lot. My shot of Espolon arrives just in time to pair it with the tostones I ordered, which were very tasty and well-needed, considering the way the night was going.
10:10 PM: I take my first trip to the restroom, which seemed noteworthy (literally) at the time. I return to find the Tres Mano Añejo, which I learn is aged in three seperate casks; one bourbon barrel, one French oak, and one charred oak. The result is a fantastically drinkable tequila, like an agave-infused bourbon. I will definitely be ordering this again.
10:17 PM: Things start accelerating. In front of me is a little wooden board holding four shot glasses of house-infused tequilas and one with a piece of raw sugar cane. The infusions are sugar cane, jalepeño, cranberry, and cinnamon-cacao, and all are made with El Jimador Blanco. After breezing through them, my favorite being the jalepeño, I chomp on the sugar cane and get another cocktail.
10:26 PM: This time, we go for the “Spice Margarita,” which is made with the house-infused jalepeño tequila, cardamom syrup, and guajillo chiles. The savory-cocktail fad is something that is starting to fall out of popularity among snobs and purists, but they’re almost always better for you than something sweet and tropical, and flavorful peppers and herbs are usually a great compliment to the earthy flavors in aged liquors.
11:01 PM: We have another margarita variation, and then decide to finish up the night by tasting a couple Mezcals. Mezcal has gained a great deal of popularity in the last couple years, both as a great alternative to tequila and as a nice mixing agent for bartenders. Like Tequila, it’s made in Mexico from an agave-type plant called maguey. Unlike tequila, Mezcal is usually characterized by a strong smoky flavor reminiscent of single malt scotch.
11:25 PM: After tasting three lovely Mezcals, we go back to Sombra tequila, and then another ancho tequila. The paper I’m looking at has notes on it, but I can’t decipher them, though it looks like I probably enjoyed these.
11:38 PM: We get the tab, finish up our sips, and head home. By my count, over roughly three hours I tried about 30 different tequilas, mezcals, tequila infusions, and cocktails.
Did I achieve my goal in making myself like tequila? I think so. I didn’t love everything, but there were definitely a few that blew me away. Tequila will probably always be a “time and place” spirit for me, but at least now I know I’ll be ready when that time and place are upon me. In the interest of full disclosure, the following day was by far the worst hangover of my entire life. It took me a few hours before I could even look at my notepad and begin writing about the venture. As I mentioned before, drinking alcohol is never good for you, especially not in the amounts that I consumed in writing this. However, tastings are usually a blast, and most bars and bartenders probably wouldn’t have a problem pouring a little dash of any spirit in a glass to whet your curious whistle. My conclusion, and my advice to the reader, is that Tequila, like all good things, should be enjoyed in moderation and in the company of trusted friends.
Ricky Johnson is a bartender, freelance graphic designer, and occasional filmmaker from Baltimore, MD. He enjoys running, snowboarding, playing drums in a punk band, drinking bourbon, and cooking. He is a co-founder and regular contributor to “The Meat Locker,” a Baltimore-based comedy podcast, a Middle River native and graduate of Towson University. He lives in Canton with two roommates and their cat.